Season of Sharing helps mother who focuses on healing trauma for herself and others

Categories: Stories of Impact, COMMUNITY CARE: Placemaking: Housing, Transportation & Economic Support, Season of Sharing,

Ti-yanna Flores was on her way to work in July, wondering what was in store, when she stopped at the traffic light at 53rd Avenue in Bradenton.

Each day at the behavioral center, she was met with something new among the kids and young adults, from tantrums to sullenness, insults to racial slurs. And each time, she showered them back with love.

It was how she'd won over the toughest cases, gaining their trust. She understood their pain, having once lived a version of it herself: childhood sexual abuse, extreme poverty and neglect.

They were lovable, she assured the kids. It was an idea she'd only just started to believe about herself.

At 28, she had finally found stability – no longer homeless or running stubbornly from a better life. Leading to that day in traffic, she had been thinking about going back to college to further her training.

Ti-yanna looked up as the light turned green, and then seconds later felt the blow from an impact amid an explosion of metal and glass.

Worthy of love

Ti-yanna was five years old when she moved from New York City to Florida with her mother, entranced by all the stars she could see in the night sky. In this new life in St. Petersburg, surrounded by her mother's family, there were tons of cousins to play with and backyard fences to jump.

There also were her mother's drug parties, she'd recall, and months without running water or electricity.

Florida was also where the sexual abuse began, by an older male relative on her mother's side, until Ti-yanna was the age of 8. After Ti-yanna told her father of the abuse, he and his parents called the police.

Life changed drastically with her paternal grandparents, who raised her from then on. Their two-story house in a gated Bradenton community with a swimming pool felt like a resort you'd see on TV.

"I loved it," she'd say.

She had a room of her own for the first time. But it was the structure and affection she remembered the most.

Her grandmother – a schoolteacher formerly in the military – got her reading through audiobooks. Soon Ti-yanna was a bookworm, excelling at school.

Her grandfather, an engineer who came of age with the Civil Rights Movement, stressed education, awarding good grades with a Harry Potter set and her first telescope. There were family vacations, board games, and baking cookies from scratch.

After Ti-yanna aced the FCAT test, her grandpa granted her wish and the three of them flew to New York, getting dressed up to see "Wicked" on Broadway.

But inside Ti-yanna was suffering. A young girl of color – from a mixed heritage of Black, white, Puerto Rican and Native American – she struggled to fit in with the other school kids, most of whom were white.

She chemically straightened her hair. She overlooked racist comments from white boys – "You're pretty for a Black girl" – and slights from white friends, who derided Black people in front of her, adding, because of her light skin, "You don't count."

Mostly, she wrestled with the trauma of her past, which caused effects she couldn't name but usually manifested in anger. In junior high, she provoked fight after fight. On pills for anxiety and ADHD, she sat sullenly in the offices of therapists – old, white people she felt couldn't relate.

Expelled from three middle schools, she finally finished at Pace Center for Girls, where she learned to set goals for herself. She'd be a pediatric nurse, she thought – loving kids but fearing having any of her own because of her troubled childhood.

Those career goals changed the day she and other students in the Manatee High School Medical Academy did a shadowing tour of a hospital psych ward.

"This is my tribe," she thought. "This is the place for me."

By her senior year, though, rebelling against her protective grandparents, she left the academy. She went to live with her mother and graduated from St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School.

Days later, she learned she was pregnant and told her high school sweetheart. Instead of the dread she'd once expected with motherhood, she was filled with love and joy. For the first time in her life, she felt she had value.

But weeks later, she suffered a miscarriage. Reeling with grief, she sensed under her sorrow a nagging belief that maybe she wasn't worthy of love after all.

A promise

The years that followed were marked by moves between her grandparents' home in Bradenton and apartments with friends and boyfriends as she worked retail jobs and took college classes.

By 2017, she was a mental health technician at a behavioral health facility for children and young teens. The job was a perfect fit. Many of the kids lashed out by insulting her, swearing or calling her names. But she understood the pain lurking underneath and responded with love, often through humor but always with respect.

The kids warmed to her, calling her "Cousin Ti" and "Miss Ti."

She accompanied them through their daily activities and group therapy, where she learned a lot about herself and her own trauma – including, for the first time, about something called PTSD.

Around then, she became pregnant again – this time carrying the baby full term – and named the little girl Phoenix, after one of her favorite Harry Potter characters.

Heading into the pandemic, Ti-yanna worked for a family shelter as a behavioral tech with special-needs kids. But soon she and Phoenix also had to move into a shelter.

While subsidized childcare and her grandma's help kept her working, Ti-yanna struggled to find stable housing as rents soared. She bounced between moldy apartments and the homes of friends until, at last, she found a two-bedroom apartment for $1,100, which she could afford on her salary.

"I'm finally stable," she thought. After all the turmoil through the first years of her daughter's life, she made a promise to both Phoenix and herself:

"I'm not going to lose this place."

"My therapy"

That day in traffic in July, a car smashed into hers going more than 45 miles per hour.

Ti-yanna missed about a month of work while undergoing surgery on her face and back after the wreck and was forced to quit her job

She looked for other work while recovering from jaw surgery, but fell further behind in rent. She couldn't lose this place, not after what she and Phoenix had been through. What's more, her rent was a great deal compared to what else was available during Sarasota-Manatee's housing crisis. And if she had to move, she'd need thousands of dollars she did not have for deposits and move-in rents – even if she could find anything available.

Luckily, she was on great terms with her rental managers, who agreed to work with her. She just needed to get over this hump.

Caseworkers at JFCS of the Suncoast said they had something to help: Season of Sharing, which paid $2,000 to cover rent for part of September and all of October.

In October, Ti-yanna started a new job at a residential center for substance abuse. Right now she handles paperwork on the night shift, but she soon hopes to work with patients again.

Struggling with a bulging disc from the wreck, she is focused on her health but still plans to go back to school, dreaming of opening an outreach program to counsel and mentor teens and young adults.

"Doing this kind of work is my therapy," she said. She knows she can't save all the kids she's tried to help. Some have returned to drugs, institutions or broken homes. But many have gone on to thrive.

"Miss Ti, if it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here," they say, some of them now in their 20s and marrying or starting a family.

Her own daughter also helps her to heal – forcing Ti-yanna out of her comfort zone, to feel safe with displays of physical affection. She knows a love she has not experienced before, both for Phoenix, now 5, and for herself. She is proud of all she's overcome, for never succumbing to a victim mentality.

"If anything," she says, "I'm a victor."

How to help

You can donate to Season of Sharing by going to or calling 941-556-2399. You can also mail a check to Season of Sharing, Community Foundation of Sarasota County, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237.

This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at .

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Season of Sharing helps mother who focuses on healing trauma for herself and others